Excerpt from article by LULAC Director of Policy and Legislation Gabriela Lemus, Ph.D.
Several recent polls have demonstrated that the American people are not averse to allowing people to stay and work in the United States as long as they obey the laws, learn English and integrate into the system. Yet, there is also a darker, meaner side as reflected by the negative campaign run by Jerry Kilgore in Virginia or highlighted nightly by such pundits as Lou Dobbs on CNN – “illegals” abuse our tax system, hurt our economy, ruin the environment and create rampant crime.
In the midst of these arguments are the businesses that require workers in order to function and to grow, the workers and their families. Foreign workers are a growing presence in the United States and hold an ever growing percentage of the jobs in this country. As of 2004, one in seven workers is foreign-born compared to the 1990s when one in ten workers was born abroad. U.S. workers are retiring in ever significant numbers and foreign workers are needed to fill their jobs. According to an October 2005 study by the Congressional Budget Office, more than 21 million workers were born abroad and almost 40 percent of those were born in Mexico and Central America and 25 percent were born in Asia.
Many of our foreign-born workers are undocumented – depending on who is counting, the estimates range from 8 to 11 million. Of these, a large number are commonly referred to as essential workers who take jobs such as digging ditches, building homes, cleaning houses, and feeding the country. While this segment of the workforce has grown, we are also witnessing a decline in the growth rate of the U.S. workforce. Between 2002 and 2012, the labor force aged 25-34 is projected to increase by only 3 million. Additionally, workers from the baby-boom aged 55 and older will increase by 18 million between 2002 and 2012 growing from 14.3 percent to 19.1 percent of the workforce. Retirees are expected to number around 77 million in 2010 and by 2030, one in every five Americans will be a senior citizen.
Yet, the focus of many legislators seems to revolve around law enforcement and preventing these essential workers quite simply from working. The costs of patrolling and enforcing federal immigration law has increased more than five times since 1992 growing from $300 per border arrest to $1,700 in 2002. Assuming that 20 percent of immigrants were to leave voluntarily, it would cost around $41 billion per year to deport the rest – that is more than the entire budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
By doing nothing aggressively humanistic or economically innovative regarding the immigration challenge means that tax payers are being asked to spend more money with less satisfactory results. The borders are no more secure now than they were a decade ago. The need for essential workers continues to grow at a steady pace. It is very difficult for workers to obtain the appropriate documentation because of the large lines, expense and bureaucratic demands of the process, which in turn grows the deficit of needed workers who resort to risking their lives with human traffickers across a dangerous border.
Politically, government officials are equally trapped in a series of election cycles whereby only in years when there are no elections is it opportune to engage in the immigration debate. In translation this means that the cycle of discussion becomes shorter and shorter for each individual bill. In the meantime, the media and anti-immigrant groups portray the immigrant community as illegal and dangerous to our nation’s safety, meshing the issues of immigration and terrorism while calling for a closing down of the U.S.-Mexico border.